Spiti Valley is a world where the people are humble, the landscape is inspiring and the culture is electric.
Riding 10 hrs in one day as a passenger on the back of a Royal Enfield hurts your bum.
Spending another 6hrs the following day bruises your tail bone.
That's what Oli and I endured to get from Manali to Kaza in Spiti Valley. A 200km ride one way, and we had to take the same route back out to Manali. The stretch of road from Gramphoo to Kunzum Pass is said to be one of the most treacherous and dangerous in the world. Doing the ride on a motorbike means you feel every rock and pothole ten fold, not to mention the ones that make the bike fish-tale in another direction.
At first I thought it couldn't have been that bad as many tourist and locals alike embark on this journey to get to Spiti valley every year. My perception was reinforced when we experienced our first 'nullah'. "That wasn't that difficult" I thought, "piece of cake!" A nullah is what the locals call the overflow of snowmelt water onto the dirt road from a waterfall or river. What we weren't prepared for was how big and deep some of these nullahs were. The first one was like riding through a puddle compared to the rest. By the second, my conception had quickly expired. This was hard and unnerving.
The second nullah we came across, 20 minutes into the main road to Spiti, had everyone parked up against the rock face of the mountain on any dirt patch they could find. We had to go through one by one and many stopped first to watch others tempt fate. Many onlookers were then amongst it all, standing knee deep in the water and helping navigate the 10 tonne trucks through, or to help push or pull the many motorists out who got their bikes jammed in rocks. Some were lucky and got through relatively well, most lost control of their bikes and got lodged or worse, their bike fell over sideways.
In total there were 33 nullahs to cross altogether. Ranging from puddle to rapid river. Olz and I had a system where I would walk through first to help navigate were the shallow bits were and he would follow my path. Sometimes you weren't so lucky and didn't have any one else to help you out if you got stuck, so this seemed like the best method. Nullahs 4, 10, 14, 20 and 23 where where we really had to put our skills to the test. Proud wife moment here, Oli was a super wiz kid on the Enfield and rode like a pro throughout the whole trip, especially getting us through the nullahs safe. By the end of our trip, we may have lost one mirror, a foot peg, had to replace a spark plug, and bent the brake pedal completely out of whack, but all in all we got out unscathed ( and still got most of our money back from our bike deposit)
Despite this, the good most definitely out weighed the bad. The scenery leading up to and throughout Spiti Valley is Un-be-liev-a-ble.
Looking back at the small village of Batal, heading up to the Kunzum Pass, Spiti Valley.
It's like being in Jurrasic Park or something. Monumental mountains surround you on both sides that are at first vibrantly lush with flowers and shubbery, whilst waterfalls aplenty cascade hundreds of metres down the rock face into the raging river below. I was half expecting to see a pterodactyl flying around the peaks.
The terrain makes you feel incredibly small. The valley carves it's way through ancient mountains that somehow dwarf you, yet at the same time empowers you to feel like a giant exploring a prehistoric world. Sometimes you don't pass anyone for hours and you realise quickly how vulnerable you are out here. So, for those of you who plan to do this trip, plan ahead and ensure you have enough water, snacks, spare bike parts, and petrol aplenty for your trip.
The terrain that unfolds in front of you for majority of the trip is dry and resembles a dessert. The wildlife is scarce and there isn't much vegetation out here. The mountains are a mysterious tricolour of red, purple, and orange, with silvery rock faces protruding through old (and sometimes new) landslides. You find yourself constantly in awe of the ever changing, but so inspiring landscape. You pass ominous looking marshlands, wooly yaks drinking from river beds where the rock and sediment has a purple hue, and rivers stained the colour of gun metal grey that verociously chisel their way through the land, snaking itself around the valley.
Hands down, Spiti valley was fast becoming my favourite place on earth!
The landscape just outside of Losar was one of my favourites.
I can not find the words that adequately describe how breathtaking the landscape in Spiti Valley is.
I was constantly inspired. I found myself thinking about my photography, where I wanted to go in life, my best friend and husband extraordinaire Oliver, and how lucky we were to be seeing and experiencing this world for ourselves. I kept thinking of my family back home and how much I hoped they could see where we were, so we could experience this magical time together, especially my Dad. I knew he would love the landscape, and the stillness of it all, being a man who loves having his own house on a hill. Some moments are too beautiful to describe and this was one of them. If there's one thing I can say to you is to chuck it on the bucket list, you need to go to Spiti Valley at least once in your life.
After 10 long hours from Manali we made it to the barely established river side village of Batal. With only 3 guest houses to choose from, all slightly better then the last, 200 rupees ($4 AUD) got us a "room" made out of large river stones interlocked with another, with a blue tarp for a roof, and thin mattresses on a dirt floor for a bed. It may not sound lush, but after our days trip, it was pretty damned cozy and welcoming. Our door was a piece of corrugated iron we had to wedge between the stone walls, and the the total height of our cozy abode was about 5 foot. The things you do when travelling and how your standards quickly adapt to the country/culture is interesting. I could never imagine myself willingly staying in a place like that before travelling, but now I realise how easy it is to find comfort in the most basic conditions. Plus, we were super tired by this stage so you could have offered me a blanket and told me to sleep outside and I would have obliged.
The monumental landscape from the small village of Batal.
I asked the home keeper where the toilet was and an old Spitian man with a weathered face pointed out back and smiled. When nature called you had to go out to "nature" as that was our bathroom. In a way it was probably one of the nicest bathrooms I've ever used, with 360 degree mountain views and a thick blanket of stars and the Milky Way to stare at. When the darkest night fell, Oli and saw about 6 shooting stars in the space of 5 minutes and satellites orbiting purposefully in the dark sky. Our room adjoined the back of a slightly larger stone and mud restaurant that had only one light. The old man who helped run the place could hardly speak a word of English but had a face that had many stories to tell. He would ask us if we wanted tea or thali (the staple Indian dish) and made us feel very welcomed.
The next morning as we readied ourselves for the ride to Kaza, a mere two minutes into our journey and our left mirror snapped off the bike. There goes a good chunk of our bike deposit. 5hrs later, bum still sore, and less one mirror, Oli and I made it to the main town in Spiti Valley, Kaza. A small town with only 3,231 people, it earns the title as one of the most remote and isolated places to visit on earth, and happily sits 11,980 feet above sea level.
The people in Spiti are Spitian and speak Spitian not Hindi. Spitian people look a lot more Tibetan than Indian. They are also some of the friendliest people you will ever meet. Constantly smiling, they humbly wave at you and help you out sincerely in any way they can. One place in particular where you will meet some extrodinary earthlings is the Key Monastery. The mountain hugging monastery is home to about 350 monks, from young to old.
Some of the local people of Kaza, Spiti Valley
Key Monastery is something else - the 14th century monastery sits boldly into the mountain side at serious altitude of 4,166 metres above sea level. The monastery happily allows foreigners the choice to stay up to 3 nights in the actual building to experience the monastic lifestyle. Initially we visited the 700+ year old castle-esque establishment just for a solitary day trip, but when we saw the smaller monk children playing in the courtyard garden, the older monks in the main prayer hall (blessed by the 14th Dalai Lama) chanting and praying in hypnotising melodies, all amongst the glorious backdrop of the hill fort monastary overlooking the grand Spiti valley, we knew we wanted to see more of this place. So, the next day we rocked up with our bags and opted to spend a night at the monastery.
Few hours after "checking in" we wondered if we had made a mistake. It was nothing like the day before. There were no children playing or studying, the monks were having a relaxing day as one priest said, so there was hardly a soul in sight, we went to play a game of chess out in the courtyard and were told we had to play in our room about 5 minutes into our game. We were strolling around campus checking out the view, when we were asked to move on as certain areas were being closed. When it came time for dinner we asked if we could sit with the monks, but were declined and chaperoned to a small private room. It wasn't very relaxing or holistic at all but at least we had company as there was a French couple and four Israeli girls staying at the monastery also. Shortly after dinner we were asked to leave that room too as this section was closing for the night. So - if we can't spend time with the monks and learn about their way, what do we do. There were a few times we debated heading back to Kaza, thinking it over we went for a stroll through the grounds after dinner. It was dark but calm. We could hear chanting and clashing of cymbals in the distance. As we neared the car park, there were about 30 monks dancing and chanting, whilst another 15 or so watched from the side lines.
Upon joining the side line posse, we met 16 year old Takpa, a monk of 5 years who was originally born in Tibet. His English was very good and he quickly began to tell us that his mother carried him from Tibet to Spiti when he was just a baby. His mother now lives in a nearby village, yet despite the close proximity, they hardly see each other all year.
Takpa explained that the older Monks were practicing the Cham dance which portrays the passage of life and is only performed once a year, taking place on the 22nd July. It's a festival held at the Monastery that brings around 600 people from nearby towns and villages to watch this dance and celebrate, for Buddha and all the gods. The dance is performed by 50 of the senior monks, all who are elaborately dressed in traditional costume, headdresses and masks, all to the beat of live drumming, chanting and ancient horns. So, naturally we decided to extend our stay in Spiti so we could watch the festival. During our hour long talk with Takpa, we learned that among other things, he likes wrestling, with Dean Ambrose and Brock Lesnar being his ultimate favourites. Of course, cricket is up there too, with Takpa associating us from Australia with Steve Smith the Aussie cricketer. He finished by saying that he loves the monastic lifestyle as it is more peaceful and his monk brothers are his family, he doesn't like to go "down there" much, as he points to the villages below.
We also learned that the reason that there were no kids around today was that they had been taken on a walk up the mountain behind the temple to put up more prayer flags. The mountain is at least 500 meters higher than the Monastery and we're talking 5 yr olds. Poor kids.
So our night at the Monastery turned out pretty decent after being able to talk and see the monks practice their dancing for the festival. We whisked ourselves off to our basic dorm for some sleep as we were leaving for Mane village in the morning.
Some of the Monks at Key Monastery for the Cham festival
Welcome to Mane village (pronounced Mar-nee). Where there is 109 families residing in this quaint little village, about 30km east of Kaza. Oli and I, after a recommendation from a local in Kaza, chose to stay at Lobzang' s homestay. A home stay, for you who do not know, is where a family opens up their home for you - you eat, sleep, and work sometimes with the family for a small fee. Homestays are mostly popular in tiny remote villages and towns so you can really get a feel for the way people live in basic conditions.
Our host was 30 yr old Lobzang who is a pea farmer and lives in a quaint house with her husband Sonam. Together they have two sons 12 and 9 years old. The eldest is at a boarding school near Bangalore, some 2,800 km away. Whilst it is a local custom in these parts of India, to send your second born son to a Monastery as young as possible to learn the ways of becoming a monk. Lobzang and Sonam only see their children once a year at Summer.
Even though there are Pea fields a plenty in this picturesque little village, Lobzang and her husband own a field 20 mins away. They work stupidly long days. Breakfast is at 7am, so Lobzang is up at 5:30am preparing breaky which is mostly chapati (Indian bread) and a basic rice noodle dish called 'jimi' to go with. All made fresh in the morning, as they don't have refrigerators to keep food. Shortly after, Lobzang walks 20 mins to her Pea field and works from 8am till 7pm. When finished, she walks the 20 min back up the mountain before her husband to come home to prepare dinner. Dinner is another curry variation (made with peas from the field) all made fresh right down to peeling the pea pods and freeing the peas. Sonam works right up until dusk falls in the pea fields and then continues work at a small convenience store to the late hours of the night. Oli and I didn't even meet him the first night as he was still working by the time we went to bed around 11pm. They do this 7 days a week.
Oliver with the loveliest Lobzang, and children from the village of Mane.
Staying with Lobzang was a humbling experience, and one I will never forget. The first day we spent the afternoon hanging out with Lobzangs 13 year old nephew, Ojan (who whips up a mean cuppa) as Lobzang was still working when we got there. Ojan showed us around the green pea fields, the small village temple and introduced us to the village children. The game of choice to play was stick rock. Stick rock is where you have a stick protruding out of rocks as a target, and then from a distance we all stand back and throw rocks at it to see who can hit it first. This is a popular game in Mane as the children don't have toys to play with. Besides this, Ojan has an old, chainless, brakeless, push bike that he shares with all the other children. Even though they didn't have much to occupy themselves, they all were beaming from ear to ear and shared everything with one another.
Two days of village life later, we packed our things and said good bye to Lobzang and Ojan and headed back to Kaza. Our last day in Spiti Valley had come and that meant it was time to head to the Key Monastery once more for the much anticipated Cham festival. We woke up early to get a quick brekkie at the Deyzor hotel, our local favourite and the best food in Kaza, before heading off to Key. Moments later as we packed our belongings onto the Enfeild and went to take off, the bike lasted about 5 minutes before deciding to conk out. Awesome. Fortunately the lovely people of Spiti came to the rescue and let Oli borrow a car to drive home and grab a spare spark plug. So, a short trip home and a quick fix later, we were happily cruising up the road to the Monastery and excited to see what the festivities would bring. Upon arrival it became quickly apparent that tourists and Spitians alike had come in the masses to see the Monks' performances. There were people everywhere and locals running pop up stalls selling everything from fruit, to toy guns, to locally sourced turquoise stones. The vibe was electric and when we arrived at 10am the dancing had already kicked off along with music being played by some of the older monks. The costumes were exquisite with flowing, intricately patterned robes, all ornately decorated with gold trim and colourful images of dragons and what I can only assume were depictions of the gods. Elaborate headpieces of black and colourful materials, with golden metalwork and little skulls topped off the first two dancers we saw.
Some of the senior monks perform the Cham Dance in elaborate costumes and headdresses.
As we are nearing the end of the main Cham dance, everything went a little manic. The main teacher of the Cham dance, sets a blaze a cauldron and waves a flag over the top to smoke it. Now if this wasn't the cue for hundreds of onlookers to flee to the centre to form a archway, then I dont know what is. At that precise moment of the flames erupting, people left right and centre were lying on the floor or forming a human gate way to the Monastery. The reason for this, is that apparently if the Monks walk over the people, it will squash all bad karma for any wrong doing. People were flinging themselves on top of others to have a spot worthy for a monk to walk over them. Small children were even placed on the ground by their parents. It was a little hard to watch. However the finale came and went literally in 5 min, and then everyone dispersed as quickly as they had thrown themselves into a mess.
How happy we were that we stayed to see this!
So, Spiti Valley was awesome, but we all know that now. As for Oli and I, as we speak we are almost out the door, ready to jet off to the next destination in our India chapter, Rajasthan!